Inside the Gameplan: How does Herman win at Texas?

Patrick Vahe. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Patrick Vahe. (Will Gallagher/IT)

One of the most overlooked aspects of college football is the way that every program and every recruiting base is different. There’s tremendous overlap that’s easy to pick up on but there are also differences from state to state and program to program varying from resources, weather, demographics, and culture that really add up. Consequently, different programs are going to reach their ceiling through different strategies.

Herman seems to grasp the big picture for Texas.

“I also want the high school coaches of the great state of Texas to know that this is their football program. We’re the flagship university of the best high school football playing state in America. And I want to continue to do a great job of recruiting our fine student-athletes produced by Texas high school football coaches.”

Texas is the second largest state in the country and high school football has a special place within the culture, which means that a ton of resources and talent goes into Texas’ high school ball and a lot is produced. The University of Texas doesn’t necessarily have to be very clever or innovative about anything, it just needs to be able to get all of those resources pointed in one direction.

The on field strategies of a program should always reflect the recruiting base that program is pulling from and while Texas has a big enough recruiting base that there’s some flexibility, the highest ceiling for the program is going to come from building on what’s already happening at the high school level and then showcasing the best of it every Saturday.

There are also unique advantages to being the biggest and first dog to a bowl that’s shared by most every team in the league and a few outsiders as well. Here’s how Herman is going to try and leverage those advantages.

On offense

The name of the game in Texas HS football is the spread offense. That’s pretty much the name of the game at every level of football these days as systems like Herman’s smashmouth spread make it too easy to get the best of both worlds between spread passing attacks and pro-style, power running systems.

The Air Raid variety of spread offenses wants to beat you on the perimeter with concepts that are always working to put defenders in space and then exploit the difficulties of covering that space. The Veer and Shoot is aiming to ultimately beat people deep by making it hard for defenses to stay on top of deep routes by fast people. The smashmouth spread is looking to do exactly that, smash you in the face and win the game by controlling the middle of the field.

It’s still a spread, so the perimeter and the vertical game are there just as the Veer and Shoot and Air Raid offenses still run the ball up the middle and mimic each other when they want to attack the perimeter or deep. The point here is “where do you want the game to be won?” The smashmouth spread teams want the game to be won in the trenches on offense.

Because Texas can generally count on recruiting the biggest, baddest OL in the Big 12, they are well situated to attempt this style. They could be the best at peppering the perimeter in the Air Raid or applying deep stress with the Veer and Shoot but there’s a comparative advantage for the Longhorns in trying to be the team that everyone else can’t match in the trenches every year and it’s actually been a stated goal of the program for as long as I can remember.

In 2016 this was one of the only things Texas was good at and some of key pieces to the formula return. Herman will have to do some work to find a TE that can help bash open holes up front, as well as a runner that can take advantage, but overall the roster is well stocked here and likely to be well stocked for the foreseeable future.

The Big 12 is not well situated to handle this kind of attack coming from Texas. We all just bore witness to the reality of what happens when the league’s top two teams put NFL OL like Connor Williams or Orlando Brown on the field, even when surrounded by youth, and then repeatedly hand the ball to NFL RBs.

D’Onta Foreman ran the ball 323 times for 2028 yards and 15 touchdowns at 6.3 yards per carry despite every opponent gameplanning to get an extra man in the box. OU’s passing game made things hard for opponents trying to sneak numbers in and their main backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon took advantage with a combined 347 carries, 2157 yards, and 19 touchdowns at 6.2 yards per carry.

The spread compounds the issue for opposing teams trying to stop a downhill running game in two major ways. The first way is how easy it makes for a program like Texas to punish opponents that try to load the box by simply flipping the ball outside to skill players that should rank amongst the league’s best athletes. Oklahoma State was able to get a pretty good run game going in the Big 12 this season despite their best talent being largely concentrated in the arm of the QB and the legs of his top receivers rather than their OL or RB.

If you’re overmatched by more than one skill player at the same time, defense becomes very difficult very quickly.

The second way that the spread has compounded this issue for Texas’ opponents is that it’s required that teams downsize on defense and choose their defenders for their athleticism in space and range in coverage. Your first concern as a Big 12 DC is making sure that you aren’t vulnerable to getting beat by just ANYBODY in the league due to an inability to cover route combos from a pair of 4.7 dudes with reliable hands and a can-do attitude. If you can’t do that, you may struggle to be bowl eligible, much less worry about beating Texas or OU and winning the league.

TCU’s starting safeties this year went 5-10, 180 apiece while the linebackers were 6-1, 210 and 6-2, 230. By season’s end they were starting a weakside end that was only 6-4, 235. The Frogs finished 24th nationally in passing S&P but only 57th in rushing S&P and were surely relieved that holding Foreman to 165 yards was enough to choke the life out of Texas’ offense. That was the second best defense in the Big 12 this season, the Big 12 just isn’t loaded with teams that are built to withstand a downhill run game comprised of NFL-caliber talents like Texas can realistically expect to field in a given year.

Many of the big time programs in Texas HS football have done similar calculus in determining how to design their offenses to maximize their advantages, the spread run game is ubiquitous across the state and the QBs and WRs the state produces are used to working in spread concepts. Most of the players that come to campus will already be familiar with the basics of the philosophy and the techniques that they’ll be using at Texas.

The offense reaches the next level when it’s run by a QB that combines the know how to distribute the ball with off-schedule playmaking or value-add that can make the offense unstoppable. The Sooners thrived this season from the fact that on the rare occasions that opposing teams were able to cover up all of their options on a given play, Baker Mayfield could still either stall for time until someone came open or take off and pick up a first down with his own legs. Texas had some guys in the past decade that had a similar effect on their teams named Vince Young and Colt McCoy.

The only challenge is that two out of three of the guys I just mentioned weren’t exactly big-ticket names in recruiting. Whatever Mack Brown or Greg Davis have claimed, it’s hard to believe they really thought Colt McCoy was one of the two or three best QBs in that class since they were hard after Ryan Perriloux as well. Oklahoma completely lucked into getting Baker Mayfield on campus.

QB eval can be hard, the benefit of the smashmouth spread at a school like Texas is that you can potentially make things relatively simple for the QB by allowing him to just become a distributor who’s responsible for getting the ball to the right dominator. That alone can be a formula for a lot of wins but if you do strike gold, the system makes it very easy to unleash a dominant QB.

On defense

Malik Jefferson and Breckyn Hager team up on the tackle. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Malik Jefferson and Breckyn Hager team up on the tackle. (Will Gallagher/IT)

As we just noted above, most of the offenses in the Big 12 are trying to make the game into a contest out in open space where you are at a major disadvantage on defense. Almost everyone has a QB that can spin the ball out to the hash marks with timing, accuracy, and rhythm, some of them are even great at it. Everyone has some targets that can’t be covered without a double team and some even have two such players. Everyone has learned how to stock up on tall, nimble OL that may or may not be able to plow the road in the run game but are pretty solid at getting in the way of pass-rushers long enough for the ball to get out.

The path for Texas in stopping teams like this is to make the focal point of the contest what happens in the trenches rather than what happens out wide. Sure, Texas can recruit the best athletes in the league and try to go mano y mano in coverage but all of the advantages in today’s rules are on the side of the offense. You can have NFL DBs and still get isolated and beat, especially if you have any players on the field with the future pros that are either slow or just inexperienced in handling route combos at tempo. The spread allows the offense to avoid the NFL DBs and send the ball to your weak spots.

I’ve observed defenses make the trenches the focal point of the contest in one of two ways. The first route is what I’ll call “the Bison strategy” where you concede numbers or advantage up front, sit back in coverage, and dare the opponent to beat you by running the ball. Make the other team prove they’re willing to let the game be decided by whether they can consistently block your DL and whatever LBs are left in the box after you spread out to lock down the pass.

Texas basically employed that strategy against Tech this season by staffing a three-down DL with OLBs at both DE spots (Breckyn Hager and Malcolm Roach), dropping seven defenders into cover 2, and then spying Pat Mahomes with Malik Jefferson.

By doing that (and by Tech refusing to try to run the ball), Texas made the game a contest of Mahomes’ ability to scramble for time or yardage vs Malik Jefferson’s ability to close in space. There’s not many QBs that can win that battle.

There’s also a more aggressive path to making the trenches the focal point available as well and it’s the path that Todd Orlando would bring to Texas. That path is to attack the offense and try to blow things up in the trenches so that the offense isn’t able to spread you out and hit you elsewhere.

Orlando loves to play normal base coverages while bringing four or five pass-rushers and doing so from every angle with his 3-4 (base) defense. The key to that approach is having DL that can blow things up on the move or when they find themselves facing 1-on-1 matchups. Orlando’s blitzes ask the DL to be able to dart laterally and often to “long stick” into gaps that are two over from their starting point. This often just serves to tie up OL so that they can’t pick up the blitzing LBs who get the glory of the sack, but if the DL can’t command attention or get penetration then it’s not going to work.

This is a defense that was designed to maximize versatile tweeners of the sort that Orlando would have had at Utah State or Houston but without a DL and at least one LB that’s explosive to deal with firing into the backfield it won’t work. Orlando has a lot of creative ways to get pressure with four pass-rushers but still needs some jimmies and joes that can blow up blocks and get to the QB. If they can find some playmakers up front then this is a scheme that can allow them to control the game, ala Ed Oliver against Louisville earlier this year.

The offense can’t spread you out and attack you on the perimeter as much if they are forced to start leaving the RB home to pick up blitzers, or adding blockers to make sure they get double teams across the line to run the ball without conceding a tackle for loss. Now you’re making the game a contest of B12 TEs vs Texas DL…who’s most likely to win that battle?

In a given year there’s usually only a few obvious, dominant DL in the state of Texas. The scarcity of that resource is perhaps the biggest impediment to the Big 12 in matching conferences like the SEC or B1G in overall quality. It’s also a place where Oklahoma or Texas can find themselves at tremendous advantage over the rest of the league.

The challenge remains to recruit dominant players up front on both sides of the ball and then to develop and deploy them against the Big 12. Tom Herman’s vision for maximizing Texas’ advantages over the rest of the league is sound, if he can execute it better than his predecessors then he’ll go down as a Longhorn legend.

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History major, football theorist.